In almost all seven Notre Dame games this season, there have been two consistencies of how the game evolves.
TJ Jones has come up with the huge scoring catch right before halftime in three different Irish hard fought victories.
The first is the Fighting Irish getting off to a frustrating start — with the exception of the opener — that instantly has it swimming upstream. It would almost seem appropriate to have each game start with the scoreboard spotting the opponent a seven-point advantage just so Notre Dame feels like it’s in its element from the outset and remove the preliminaries.
Both Michigan and Purdue jumped to 10-0 leads, and Michigan State took a 7-3 advantage early in the second quarter in what was going to be a defensive slugfest. Oklahoma was up 14-0 within the first three minutes, which we believe to be an unofficial record in Notre Dame Stadium by an opponent. Arizona State built a 6-0 advantage in the opening quarter. Finally, this past weekend, USC’s opening series saw it drive 96 yards — the longest march versus Notre Dame this year — for a 7-0 lead.
Unlike earlier in the year, Notre Dame’s offense did not come out sleepwalking versus the Sun Devils and Trojans. The Irish took the opening kickoff against ASU and played “keep away,” controlling the ball for 14 plays and 6:52, only to see a 38-yard field goal attempt by Kyle Brindza miss.
Versus USC, the Irish against took the opening kickoff and methodically drove 74 yards in 11 plays to the Trojans one — only to have running back Cam McDaniel thrown for a three-yard loss on fourth-and-goal. USC then responded with its 96-yard march.
We can’t recall Notre Dame failing to score on an opening drive in six straight games since the 3-9-train wreck in 2007.
However, the flip side is the closing drives of the first half, which were extremely pivotal in each of the five victories as well as the two defeats:
• In the opener, Temple scored a touchdown with 1:01 left until halftime to cut its deficit to 14-6. Momentum had shifted to the Owls. On the first play after the kickoff, Tommy Rees connected with tight end Troy Niklas for a 66-yard touchdown, the game’s turning point.
• At Purdue, Notre Dame had one of its worst offensive displays going and trailed 10-0 — until right before the half. An 80-yard drive that milked 5:14 ended with a 20-yard Brindza field goal with 44 seconds left to at least provide some life going into the locker room en route to a 31-24 victory.
• Versus Michigan State, the Irish offense was stumbling against the stout Spartan defense, but right before halftime a 50-yard drive ended with Rees, on third-and-goal, threading the needle to TJ Jones in the back of the end zone with only 17 seconds to provide a crucial 10-7 halftime lead. The Irish would win, 17-13.
• In the Arizona State game, Notre Dame gave up a demoralizing 36-yard touchdown on fourth-and-four with 2:03 left until the half that gave the Sun Devils a 13-7 edge. The Irish answered with an impressive 71-yard drive in eight plays, culminating with an eight-yard TD pass from Rees to Jones with only 10 seconds left to go into the locker room with a 14-13 lead. Psychologically, it was immense.
• Against USC, the Irish were trailing 10-7 and backed up at their nine with 2:42 left until halftime. It was a chance for USC to hold and maybe even take a two-score cushion into the dressing room. Instead, 24- and 36-yard runs by McDaniel highlighted the 91-yard march that culminated with a TD pass from — who else? — Rees to Jones for 11 yards. It would prove to be the clutch game-winner with 1:13 left on the clock.
Notre Dame’s offense has thrived with time running out in the first half. It almost seems like going into the hurry-up, two-minute offense mode brings out its best.
Unfortunately, in both of the losses, a crucial closing touchdown by the opposition helped do the Irish in with two-score deficits. On Sept. 7, Michigan took a two-touchdown lead into halftime (27-13) on a 12-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left. Versus Oklahoma three weeks later, the Sooners drove 88 yards and scored a TD with 20 seconds left for a 21-7 advantage.
Slow starts won’t always dictate outcomes. But what occurs right before halftime has been a deciding factor each week.